James Blish

Special WYD wannabee-Catholic edition: science fiction writers who should be in the canon ahead of Philip K Dick, part 5

Either Thomas M Disch or R A Lafferty could also have been in this week’s science fiction post with equal justification; maybe even John Sladek, too, thinking of the ludicrous Oulipian treatment he gives the Nicene Creed in The Müller-Fokker Effect. But I’ve already done them.

Blish is more sober about his incorporation of Catholicism into science fiction than the other three writers. Where Disch and Sladek are anti-clerical satirists, and Lafferty is a sincere believer, expressing himself using the Chestertonian techniques of fable, allegory and paradox, Blish is a more neutral observer who is fascinated by the ways in which science and religion interact. In A Case of Conscience, he sends a Jesuit biologist on a first-contact mission to an alien planet, and treats his characters’ beliefs with a kind of politely distanced respect.

The linked novels Black Easter, or Faust Aleph-Null and The Day After Judgement are not quite as calm: brief exercises in midnight-black comedy which mix medieval demonology, Cold War nuclear paranoia and Menippean satire, and manage to get in some pretty good philosophy-of-science jokes along the way. A good illustration of the novels’ tone: a group of Dr Strangelove-style Strategic Air Command scientists argue about the implications of the spectrographic readings they are getting of the red-hot iron walls of the city of Dis, which has broken through the Earth’s crust in Death Valley, California.

Together with the historical novel Doctor Mirabilis, a biography the 13th-century Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon, all these books form the After Such Knowledge trilogy.

Blish is probably more well-known for his Cities In Flight books, which I haven’t read.


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